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The first shared lab space in Russia for life sciences and biotech startups opened its doors at the Skolkovo Technopark on Wednesday with a mission to help budding biomed entrepreneurs test their theories and turn their ideas into a commercial company.
The Skolkovo Foundation's chairman of the board Igor Drozdov (left) and senior vice president for innovations Kirill Kaem cut the ribbon at the opening of Sk BioLab in the Technopark on Wednesday. Photo: Sk.ru.
Sk BioLab is designed as a shared space where teams that are just starting out can carry out basic life science research. Co-working labs where biomed scientists can rent facilities and equipment exist in the U.S. and Europe, but until now, no such space has existed for Russian scientists, presenting a problem for would-be biomed startups: currently, many budding entrepreneurs test their theories at the state research facilities or universities where they are employed, which often leads to conflicts over the intellectual property rights.
“Most laboratories that early-stage projects need are located in scientific research institutes, meaning that startups who go there not only come up against a huge mound of bureaucratic problems; if it’s not yet a startup but a scientific group, problems arise over how to share the intellectual property rights to the results obtained between the team and the institute it works at,” explained Kirill Kaem, the Skolkovo Foundation’s senior vice president for innovations (and a qualified doctor), at the lab’s official opening.
“We have created a lab in which groups of scientists who perhaps have not yet set up a startup can work, carry out their initial experiment and obtain proof of concept and all the facts they need to become a [Skolkovo] resident or to form the basis for obtaining a grant, without having to stump up for large capital expenses,” said Kaem.
The Sk BioLab can accommodate about 40 scientists, or about 12-15 startups consisting of an average of three people. The range of apparatus available is nothing out of the ordinary, and that is the point, said Elmira Safarova, science director of the Skolkovo Foundation’s biomed cluster.
“The equipment here is simple, but without it, no project in the field of life sciences is possible,” she told Sk.ru ahead of the lab’s opening. “The apparatus here is more than enough for people with the necessary skills to work on it.”
Should residents require additional complex apparatus or resources, they can turn to Skolkovo’s shared resource centres for help, added Safarova.
DRD Biotech CEO Anzhey Zhimbiev shows off one of the first cards granting access to the lab. Photo: Sk.ru.
The lab is divided into four zones: the “kitchen” (for water conditioning, high-pressure steam sterilizers, dry-air sterilizers, an area for washing lab dishes and so on), zones for working with prokaryotes (organisms without a cell nucleus) and eukaryotes (cells with a nucleus and other organelles), and an area for performing polymerase chain reactions and bioassays. These are the four pillars of any life sciences project, but they are unaffordable for most small startup labs, and investors are reluctant to fund capital expenses, even though such labs produce intellectual property, said Safarova.
Startups were lining up for places in the lab ahead of its opening, she said, including resident startups, which are entitled to a discount on renting places in it.
Two of the first residents of the Sk BioLab are Knomics, a microbiome research company, and DRD Biotech, which has developed an express test for diagnosing ischemic strokes and brain damage. DRD has its own lab at the Skolkovo Technopark, equipped with devices that the company bought using a grant from the Skolkovo Foundation.
“But there is equipment that we need but are not able to buy ourselves, and which it wouldn’t be rational for our company to buy at the stage it’s at,” DRD CEO Anzhey Zhimbiev told Sk.ru. “Now, with the appearance of the Sk BioLab, we have the opportunity to use that equipment. And we will use it to make sure that our express tests enter the market as soon as possible and start helping people who have suffered strokes and brain injuries.”
The Sk BioLab is also a good way to bring startups into the foundation’s orbit that are at the earliest stage of development and which are beginning to think about commercializing their research, said Safarova.
“We expect that the lab will be used not only by our startups, but by external teams that are not yet Skolkovo residents,” said Kaem.
“We really hope that the appearance of such a lab will result in a new intake of strong projects that can set up companies with their own IP, and that will be profitable,” he explained.
Elmira Safarova, science director of the Skolkovo Foundation's biomed cluster. Photo: Sk.ru.
The second category of people the Sk BioLab is aimed at is serial entrepreneurs and business angels.
“In Russia, the situation [with them] is not so great, while in the West, they are the main target audience for such projects,” said Safarova.
“The average time spent by startups in such labs is about 18 months. In that time, the entrepreneur can assess the project’s potential, and the team he or she is financing either graduates to a more developed ecosystem, or closes down.”
Safarova believes it should take about the same amount of time to determine the potential of the teams that will work from Sk BioLab.
“A year from now, we plan to organize a classic demo day and invite Skolkovo’s industry partners and venture funds,” she said. “After all, there is a big deficit of interesting startups working in life sciences: there are far more investors than promising teams worth investing in. In this respect, the activity of an open lab in the Technopark is a good additional tool for generating such startups.”
Startups started lining up for places in the shared lab long ahead of its opening on Wednesday. Photo: Sk.ru.
The third section of the target audience that Safarova hopes to attract to the project is Big Pharma. Pharma companies could sponsor lab space for the startups they are interested in, give the teams grants for the necessary materials, and share their expertise in how to commercialise the research results.
“I would like to see both international and Russian pharma companies that have R&D divisions among our partners,” said Safarova.
“We plan to set up an industrial accelerator here together with Big Pharma, for teams assessed by pharma companies to have good research and commercial potential. During a year of working from here, they could not only complete a classic acceleration programme, but also test their idea and carry out a set of experiments that could then be shown to a venture investor,” she said, adding that there is currently no such programme for life science startups in Russia.
Safarova is speaking from experience, having previously headed the company BIND (RUS), the Russian subdivision of the U.S. company BIND Therapeutics Inc., which developed a nanomedical platform for targeted drug therapy.
“Scientists in Russia immediately come up against two problems: equipment and reagents,” says Safarova. A preparation that a U.S. lab would receive within a couple of days of ordering it can take months to arrive in Russia. And the cost of the same product can vary enormously. If the answer to the first problem is the launch of Sk BioLab, then a solution to the second could also soon be found at Skolkovo.
“It’s possible that we might be able to partially solve the problem with reagents at the Technopark,” said Safarova.
“I’m polling market operators and distributors of reagents for life sciences, who could, in exchange for access to a large pool of customers, organize a warehouse here, therefore offering delivery both faster and cheaper,” she said.